Amongst all the problems of civilisation with which we are dealing in these lectures the problem of “technics” is the youngest. All the others have worried Western mankind and Christianity for centuries; not so technics. In earlier times people had hardly become conscious of it much less did they think of it as a problem. To-day however it is in the front line because—to a degree previously unheard of—technics—or shall I say technology?—determines the life of man endangers the human character of civilisation and even threatens the very existence of mankind. Whilst half a century ago the startling progress of technology was the basis of an optimistic philosophy of life and progress since the two world wars and particularly since the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima the conception of technics has become more and more connected with gloomy even desperate perspectives for the future. The question whether civilisation and mankind will survive has become the problem of the hour so that we cannot but start with it.
This fact—that technology has recently become the most urgent of all problems—contrasts strangely with the other fact that technics is as old as humanity. Human history begins with the invention of the first stone tool that is with technics. It is in the shape of homo faber that man first shows himself as a being transcending nature. From this beginning technics that is the creation and use of artificial tools serving the life of man has increasingly distinguished man's life from that of the animal and imprinted upon it a specifically human character. The history of technics from its beginning to say the time of James Watt is characterised by an almost unbroken more or less equable and therefore quite unobtrusive progress. Step by step man makes headway in solving the task which he recognises as his own to subdue nature by his technical inventions.
We distinguish the first epochs of human history by their technical character speaking of the stone age the bronze age and the iron age where an almost unnoticeable transition from one to the other makes the distinction difficult. The same is true of what we call historical man as we find him first in the Delta of the Nile in Mesopotamia in the great valleys of China and of India where the history of civilisation has its origin. Everywhere the development of technics is the hardly perceptible and therefore often forgotten basis of political social and cultural change. Nowhere does this technical evolution assume a revolutionary aspect never does it appear as a break with the past. All epochs and all nations in history are equally technical and therefore none is so in an outstanding sense. That is true also of Western history as it first appears as a characteristic unity in the Roman Empire; it is true of the Middle Ages and up to the beginning of the 18th century; but at that moment it is as if this underground current suddenly broke through the surface. The curve of development which hitherto had been a continuously and almost imperceptibly rising straight line abruptly takes the form of a parabola becoming steeper and steeper. Technology begins to become a great revolutionary power and within the last few decades it has taken the lead in the life of the Western nations and even of the whole world. It has become the dominating factor of modern civilisation. The changes which technology has wrought in the last two centuries are beyond all comparison with those in previous ages. That is why our epoch is called the age of technics and why the problem of technology unknown to previous epochs has suddenly become the most urgent problem of all.
Why is this so? We might answer this question first by pointing to the tempo of technical inventions and the changes created by them. The mad speed of technical progress makes mankind breathless; with one invention pressing fast on another man cannot get any rest. The growth of technics is out of proportion to the progress made in other departments of life and puts to shame all attempts of society to adapt itself to the technical change in order to make it useful and beneficent. It is like what happens when a youth suddenly begins to grow at a great pace. His spiritual development cannot keep pace with his bodily growth and therefore there are disturbances.
There is a disproportion between bodily and spiritual growth the one taking place at the cost of the other. This comparison with its emphasis on the time-aspect of technical evolution is certainly legitimate. It is true that technical evolution and change acquired such a speed that the balance of power within society was disturbed and that the social changes which would have been necessary to adapt life to them could not be made adequately. We might say that the mushroom growth of giant cities with their apparent poverty of structure and their production of a mass-society and mass-psychology was a kind of surprise-effect produced by lack of time for adaptation. In a similar way one can attribute the preponderance of technical interest in our generation to this speedy development of technics.
But such an analysis remains wholly on the surface. More than that: it falsifies the picture of real history by making the cause the effect and the effect the cause. This idea of social adaptation lagging behind technical progress rather hides than reveals the truth. It is not technics which has created the modern man but it is the modern man who has created technics. The technical man existed before technics. Take as an example the most famous novel hero of the age immediately preceding the technical revolution Robinson Crusoe. Compare Robinson Crusoe with his colleague in suffering Ulysses. How differently they face their identical lot of being cast by shipwreck on a solitary island! There is not much difference technically between Robinson Crusoe and Odysseus. Perhaps the most important difference is that Defoe's hero in distinction from Homer's has and uses gunpowder. But the main difference is this and this is exactly what Defoe wants to show: how Crusoe masters technically his hopeless condition. This is the inspiring idea which has made the book a favourite of youth: the idea of the man who helps himself out of the difficulties the man who—ingenious in quite another sense than Ulysses—is capable of subduing hostile nature step by step.
Behind the technical evolution of the last two hundred years there is a much deeper spiritual process with which the first part of these lectures has dealt. This process begins with the Renaissance leading on to the Enlightenment and beyond it to the radically positivist secularised man of to-day. Modern technics is the product of the man who wants to redeem himself by rising above nature who wants to gather life into his hand who wants to owe his existence to nobody but himself who wants to create a world after his own image an artificial world which is entirely his creation. Behind the terrifying crazy tempo of technical evolution there is all the insatiability of secularised man who not believing in God or eternal life wants to snatch as much of this world within his lifetime as he can. Modern technics is to put it crudely the expression of the world-voracity of modern man and the tempo of its development is the expression of his inward unrest the disquiet of the man who is destined for God's eternity but has himself rejected this destiny. The hypertrophy of technical interest resulting in a hyperdynamism of technical evolution is the necessary consequence of man's abandonment to the world of things which follows his emancipation from God.
Let us return for a moment to those quiet periods which nobody would call technical though even then technics had reached a high measure of development and was incessantly progressive. What do we mean by “technics”? In the first place domination over nature emancipation from its hazards by intensifying and multiplying the functions of bodily organs. The hammer and the crane are the fortified fist and the prolonged arm the car is the improved foot and so on. The whole of technics is a continuation of what nature has given to man as his particular character: upright walk. That is why technics is as such a task given to man by the Creator that Creator who gave man the upright spine and thereby the freedom of the use of his hands and the eye directed to infinitude. God wants man to use his intelligence in order to rise above nature and “subdue the earth”. This phrase is found on the first page of the Bible. It immediately follows that other phrase in which the specific nature and destiny of man is expressed: “and God created man in His own image”. It is not by chance that the second precedes the first. The task of subduing the earth follows from the the first. The task of subduing the earth follows from the nature and the destiny given to man by the Creator. It is most likely that the author of this first chapter of Genesis was thinking of the upright walk of man but this physical presupposition of his superiority is the expression of a deeper reason for superiority. Man is called to transcend nature because he is called to be godlike. Technics is only one of the forms of nature-transcendence but it is that which presupposes the others higher civilisation and spiritual life.
So long as man does not use artificial means he remains dependent on what nature gives here and now. That is he necessarily remains on a low more or less animal level of development. He is completely at the mercy of natural hazard and tied to the moment; he cannot look into the future he cannot shape his life he must live it as nature gives it. By the invention of artificial tools man emancipates himself to a certain degree from the dictates of nature. The technics of housebuilding and agriculture make him independent of what nature gives at each particular time and place. With a roof over his head and four walls around him he can defy the weather and live where he chooses. By agriculture he dictates to the earth what to produce for him and to produce it in such a measure that he can store up enough for the future. He makes water or wind drive his mill. He captures the wind in his sail and forces it to carry him over the seas. The spinning-wheel and the loom make him independent of the scarce animal-skins for clothing. One by one he cuts the thousand ties by which his body and its needs are linked to the fortuitous formation and production of the ground. The development of crafts of all sorts leads to differentiation of human society and to the specialised training and development of spiritual capacities; it leads to exchange to the communal life of the city to communication between town and town between country and country. The crafts are at the same time a preparation for higher arts and in the form of artistic trade they play their part in aesthetic ennoblement.
Technical skill can be learned and therefore transmitted from generation to generation. That is why in this sphere of life there is an unambiguous and more or less continuous progress. Each generation learns from the one before and adds new inventions. In this process of technical education the mind is trained for methodical work. The multiplicity of crafts makes for a rich differentiation of the spirit. It cannot be denied that cities with their differentiated crafts are pre-eminently the seats and nurseries of higher culture and education. All these organic types of technics—if I may so call them—are easily forgotten in our age of highly abstract mechanical and therefore inhuman technics. But they belong to the true picture and show the close relation between technics and truly human civilisation.
Even in this picture of pre-modern technics however there are traits of a more sinister quality. Closely related to the tool and often expressed by the same word is the weapon. The development of crafts almost everywhere gives rise to the development of war technics. There are exceptions to this rule one of the most interesting being that of the older China where an almost unique development of crafts did not lead to a parallel development of war technics because war and fighting were stigmatised culturally and morally. Not even the invention of gunpowder which in Europe had such pernicious consequences could become dangerous among this peaceful people. The moral discredit of war was so deep that gunpowder was never allowed to be used for war purposes and its dangerous energy was puffed out in harmless fire-works. But apart from this most honourable exception the development of technics generally resulted in increasingly dangerous weapons and wars. The Roman technics of roadbuilding was developed primarily for military purposes. The technics of shipbuilding created the navy and so on. Still all this remained within limits which prevented technics from being the dominating potential of war.
Another danger to society resulting from technical development is the formation of social classes. Technical like military superiority creates differences of property social privilege and power. These differences however so far as they were conditioned by technics did not become very dangerous in the pre-modern ages because it was not so difficult to acquire technical skill and technical means. From all this we can conclude that on the whole the positive beneficial aspects of technical progress by far outweighed the negative or evil ones. In the “golden age of the crafts” nobody would have thought of technics as a serious danger or even a problem of civilisation.
All this is suddenly changed with the introduction of machine technics. It had a sort of prelude in the invention of gunpowder and its application to warfare. The consequences of this invention were far-reaching and could give a premonition of what further similar leaps in the development might mean. It is strange and somehow shameful that Christian Europe did not succeed in doing—perhaps did not even attempt to do—what had been achieved by the Chinese. At any rate with gunpowder technics begins to acquire a negative trait in European history. But incomparably more revolutionary was the invention of the steam engine and the locomotive and later on the discovery and technical use of electricity and of petrol the invention of light metals and the development of chemistry. Now begins the technical age. As we said before we should not look upon these inventions as the real causes of the technical revolution; they had to come because men wanted them. They had to develop at such an unparalleled rate because men did not want to limit their development in any way. Still once technics had become what it is now its effects upon the social and spiritual life of mankind are tremendous.
It has often been said and it is obviously true that all the technical changes which took place in the life of men from the stone age to James Watt are not nearly as great as those since James Watt. The life of a farmer or craftsman before the invention of the steam engine was not so different from that of Jeremiah's time as from that under modern agriculture and industry. Machine industry in the broadest sense of the word including transport and communication has changed not only the life of Europe and America but that of the whole surface of the world in a tempo and in a measure completely unparalleled before.
This technical revolution has its positive as well as its negative side. By it man has indeed subdued the earth in a measure inconceivable before. By the radio he has eliminated distance completely so far as mental communication is concerned; by the aeroplane he has eliminated it almost completely so far as bodily communication is concerned. The techniques of production are capable of nourishing clothing housing every inhabitant of this earth in more than sufficient degree and with almost complete certainty. Hunger and want are no more inevitable. That they are still amongst us is entirely conditioned by political social international power-relations preventing the reasonable use of technical possibilities. Medical and hygienic techniques would be sufficient to create everywhere conditions of life which would guarantee to a high degree a healthy life and development of the child and double the average age of man. The invention of cinema and radio perfecting that of the printing-press allows an almost unlimited spreading of cultural assets. In a measure then present day technics places at the disposal of man the means which would safeguard a high standard of life and give access to cultural advantages to everyone capable of understanding and valuing them. Technical mankind has a superabundance of all things needed and a superabundance of means to transport them wherever they are needed. If there were no war if there were only just and reasonable laws if all men were well-intentioned technics would provide so it seems almost a paradise. The technicians can claim that it is not their fault if at this hour more than ever before mankind presents features of the utmost misery and the most unworthy conditions. All this is meant by the phrase “technical progress” which up to recent years was used without hesitation. It seems as if technics—and particularly modern technics—was an indisputable gain for mankind.
Why is it then that nobody at this hour uses that word “progress” without hesitation if at all? Let us be clear that there is no such thing as “technics in itself”. The production of a cannon is a technical affair but at the same time it is the expression of a certain political and military will. The production of dangerous narcotics is a matter of chemical industry but it serves purposes which are medically and morally unsound and pernicious. Technics therefore is never purely technical. It always stands in the closest connection with the totality of social and cultural life and of man himself. “Technics” is an abstraction which does not exist. There are only men working technically for certain purposes. When modern man conceived the idea of redeeming himself and making himself master of his life by technics he did not know or divine that such technics would have results of a very different order. What then are those effects of the technical revolution which an increasing majority of modern men abhor?
Modern technics does not mean merely a fantastic extension of man's power over nature: it also means millions of men working underground uncounted millions of men massed together in soulless giant cities; a proletariat without connection with nature without a native heath or neighbourhood; it means asphalt-culture uniformity and standardisation. It means men whom the machine has relieved from thinking and willing who in their turn have to “serve the machine” at a prescribed tempo and in a stereotyped manner. It means unbearable noise and rush unemployment and insecurity of life the concentration of productive power wealth and prestige in a few hands or their monopolisation by state bureaucracy. It means the destruction of noble crafts with their standards of quality and their patriarchal working conditions; it means the transformation of the farmer into a specialised technician of agriculture the rise of an office proletariat with infinitely monotonous work. It means also the speedy standardisation of all national cultures and the extinction of their historical originality. It means universal cliché-culture the same films and musical hits from New York to Tokio from Cape Town to Stockholm the same illustrated magazines all over the world the same menus the same dance-tunes. It means the increasing domination of quantity over quality not only in production itself but also in the formation of social political and international power.
Above all there are two phenomena in very recent times which like devilish monsters rise from that progressively technified mankind: the modern totalitarian state and modern technical war industry. It cannot be said that the totalitarian state is the necessary product of technics but its relation to technics is obvious. Without modern technics the totalitarian state is impossible. And the tendency towards totalitarianism lies within technical evolution: mechanisation centralisation mass-men. Modern war industry however is the direct product of modern technics. Let us remember it is not the technicians that are guilty but man who has abandoned technics to itself incapable of bridling its development putting technics without hesitation and as if driven by necessity at the service of his political power-aims. This war machinery displayed its terrifying force in the first world war. The second world war manifested its increased destructive force; but since then there has come that last step or leap: the use of atomic energy which means a sudden increase in the capacity of annihilation without analogy in the previous history of technics. Now the development of technical warfare has reached the point where nothing is impossible to it. Mankind for the first time faces possible universal suicide.
This is the other the dark side of the picture. It shows how dangerous it is to speak of technics in abstracto. One could have known from the history of technics that every technical advance does not change merely man's relation to nature but also man's relation to man. Every invention is an increase in power and every increase in power within society is a danger to its balance and order. This fact could remain unnoticed so long as technical progress could be assimilated socially and ethically. It is the tragic fact of modern history that the technical revolution took place at a time when mankind was in a process of social dissolution and ethical confusion. It was the era of progressive secularisation and mass-atheism when all ethical standards were relativised and men became metaphysically and ethically homeless. Cause and effect mutually interpenetrate each other. We have already seen that modern technics could not have developed without a certain spirit of rationalism and secularisation. It is however equally true that secularised humanity was not socially and ethically equal to the technical revolution. Only a society which was incapable of subordinating the profit motive to higher motives a society which was ethically and even aesthetically callous and enfeebled could allow the growth of those soulless ugly giant cities with their speculative building and their proletarian quarters. Only such a society could watch without protest the dissolution of all natural community and accept as inevitable the development of modern war technics.
In this connection we have to point out grave fault on the part of the Christian Church. The Church ought to have been on the watch-tower. She ought to have seen what was going on behind those beautiful slogans of freedom and progress. The Church might have been expected to protect men from enslavement and from becoming automatons. The Church ought to have seen that in such conditions which upset all the order of creation the preaching of the Gospel became almost illusory. Is it not shameful for the Christian society that Confucian China was capable of suppressing the military use of gunpowder while the Christian Church could not prevent and did not even try to prevent the development of a war machinery incomparably more dreadful?
European industrial history is not altogether devoid of indications of what might have happened if modern industry had developed within a truly Christian society. I am thinking of a certain phase in the industrial development of Great Britain and Switzerland. Within a few decades of the invention of the steam engine these countries experienced a physical and social devastation within the working population which was definitely alarming. But then moral and religious forces reacted and were called to the defence. By social legislation by the trade-union and co-operative movements and by something like an awakening of social consciousness through prophetic personalities much of the damage was repaired in a comparatively short time. What had been called technical necessity proved quite unnecessary. The technique of fabrication so often regarded as being beyond ethical control was effectively put under such control. Many things remained bad enough but yet the effect of this ethical-social reaction against the technical materialistic laissez-faire gives us a faint idea of what could have been avoided if society had awakened in time to the ethical dangers of so-called progress.
Nobody can say how far the disease of uncontrolled unassimilated technics has progressed already whether the disease has reached the point where it becomes incurable or not. It is our duty however to open our eyes to the imminent threat to life and to do whatever we can to make technics serve human ends.
The nature of technics is to place at man's disposal the means for certain purposes. Of course the production and use of technical means is in itself a purpose but it is never a Selbstzweck an ultimate purpose. It is essential to the health of a society that this order of ends and means should be known and recognised so that technics as the sum of means is subordinated to man's life. Where the means become more important than the end where technics becomes autonomous a social disease develops which is analogous to cancer: autonomous growths not useful but injurious to the organism which develop independently of the organic centre and finally destroy the organism. When for instance a country rejoices over the growth of a city of millions of inhabitants this is as stupid as if someone were to rejoice over the growth of a cancer. Giant cities are merely symptoms but they are obvious symptoms of autonomous technical growth which finally leads to destruction.
The positive meaning of a human civilisation depends on this subordination of means to ends. The reversal of this order therefore results in civilisation becoming inhuman and finally perverted. For this reversal of the order of ends and means which produces a demonic autonomy of technics secularisation is more to blame than technics. It is because the world and its goods become to men more important than God eternal life and love that men throw themselves into the production of material goods with that passion of which the human soul destined for infinitude is capable. Technics was merely the means by which this insatiable desire for material goods could be or seemed to be stilled because technics is capable of unlimited development. Once brought into action this process of unlimited increase and expansion could no longer be controlled. The machine invented by man began to control man's will; whether he liked it or not he had to obey the logic of technical development. It was exactly as in Goethe's symbolic ballad Der Zauberlehrling about the spying apprentice who had found out his wizard master's magic word which summoned obedient spirits to his service. For a while he revelled in the service of the water-carrying spirits; but before long he became afraid because the spirits could no longer be controlled so that by their very service the poor apprentice was in peril of being drowned—Die ich rief die Geister werd ich nun nicht los—a catastrophe from which the master's intervention saved him. This is very like our situation. Man has learned to control the immeasurable powers of nature. Modern man dominates nature to a degree unthinkable in previous ages. But whilst man controls nature by technics he no longer control's his own technics but is more and more dominated by it and threatened with catastrophe.
Last century saw the climax of technical enthusiasm and of belief in progress by technics. It was then that people hoped technics would relieve man of all impediments and troubles connected with his body. “Our saviour is the machine” ran a sentence in a German newspaper. This enthusiasm for technics can still take hold of peoples whose technical development has lagged behind that of Western Europe. It can develop the more where the ground is prepared by secularist thinking which recognises only earthly and material goods. In Western Europe however this enthusiasm has been followed by disillusionment deep despondency and fear. The first part of the story of the Zauberlehrling is finished. The second part is in full process and since the invention of the atomic bomb is approaching its climax.
Such disillusionment and despair might bring about a real turn of the pendulum in the right direction but only if man is capable of understanding something of the deeper causes of this fatal automatic development of technics if he comes to see the false order of means and ends—that is secularisation loss of faith in God and in eternal values—as the root of the whole matter. All other proposals to make technics subservient again to human ends and all attempts to heal the damage to social and personal life produced by the technical revolution are mere palliatives. I do not mean that they are worthless they may even be necessary as the treatment of symptoms—such as fighting the fever—is often necessary until more radical therapy can begin. But unless there is a basic conversion technics will develop as before and the tempo of its development will not decrease but increase because nowadays men not only make inventions but have found the technique of making inventions. For this reason all corrections coming from outside always come too late. The crazy tempo of technical revolution can only be reduced to a degree which is socially and personally supportable if the whole scale of values of European nations can be changed. As long as material values indisputably take the first place no change for the better is to be expected.
The perversion of the order of means and ends was caused by the decay of the consciousness of personality. And this in its turn was the consequence of the decay of Christian faith. In our time many have come to see and are ready to admit that moral values ought to be put in the first place. This insight is good but not sufficient. Mere ethics has never displayed real dynamic. You cannot cure a demon-ridden technical world with moral postulates. In contrast to mere ethics and morality Christian faith has the dynamic of passion of surrender and sacrifice; it is capable of turning men to the eternal end of unmasking demonic sin and thereby banning it which no enlightened education is capable of doing.
Technics in itself is no problem for the Christian man. As long as technics is subordinate to human will and human will is obedient to the divine will technics is neutral and as a means of goodwill is itself good. From the Christian point of view there is no reason to condemn the machine and to return to the spinning-wheel. Even the use of atomic energy is not in itself harmful or bad. But we can hardly avoid the question whether technical evolution has not already passed the limits within which it is controllable by feeble mortal men. This question cannot be theoretically decided. It is a question of the real dynamic. For us the only important question is whether mankind is ready or may become ready to perform that inward right-about-turn which alone will correct the fatal perversion of the order of means and ends.